Utah legislator suggests sociology degree may be “degree to nowhere”

A legislator in Utah made some comments recently that sociology, along with several other disciplines, do not provide helpful degrees for some students:

Stephenson, who has a four-year degree and master’s from BYU, said colleges aren’t giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story.

“These colleges refuse to inform them,” Stephenson said. “They refuse to give them the data.”

Stephenson is clarifying to say he is not calling four-year degrees undesirable. Nonetheless, his message is already being met with opposition from his legislative counterparts.

“Clearly it sends the wrong message,” said Senate Minority Leader Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. “Basically, what we need to be saying is that these are all important and not to be pitting one against the other, because they all provide value.”

Romero pointed to sociology majors, which sometimes turn into lawyers and earn good paychecks.

“What’s most important is getting a liberal education, getting a well-rounded education and learning how to think,” he said.

Even some Republican colleagues are questioning the strength of Stephenson’s message. Tuesday, Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, told Stephenson he was overstating the lack of value in a college degree.

Stephenson appears to be finding support for his rationale in a new Harvard University report out Wednesday. It says the education system is failing a lot of students that need to be career-ready, not college-ready.

Stephenson is calling certain four-year degrees “degrees to nowhere” as he pushes for an increase in funding for applied technology colleges.

While Stephenson is pushing for more vocational training, it is interesting that he picks on sociology (along with psychology and philosophy). A few thoughts about this:

1. These degrees do lead to some jobs or career paths. For example, sociology can often feed into social work or work in the criminal justice field. But some of these ties are not as obvious as perhaps business, pre-law, or pre-med.

2. It would be interesting to see the data to which Stephenson refers. Does this data say these majors can’t find work? Does it say that they earn less over a lifetime compared to some other majors? Do these majors have more student loans or debt after college? Does it say they have less meaningful jobs? Just curious.

3.  The skills of knowing how to interact with other cultures and people from different backgrounds seems valuable. See David Brooks’ argument about the difficulty of working with people.

4. The legislator Romero tries to defend these degrees but makes two interesting points of his own:

4a. The idea that these degrees and the skills developed in earning the degree have value even if it is not monetary value is a broader comment about society. If social workers, for example, are important and needed, shouldn’t the profession be better paying and more prestigious? Pay does not necessarily equate with social prestige or value.

4b. Romero then suggests that sociology can be fine if it is paired with a law degree. So the only way sociology is valuable is when paired with a prestigious and higher-earning degree?

5. The way this story is presented, the argument breaks down along party lines: the Republican thinks these degrees are not as worthwhile, the Democrat tries to defend them. Can we simply say that Stephenson thinks these degrees are not worth much because they support or promote values he disagrees with?

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